Tag Archives: council housing

Grenfell Tower fire – Act now, warns campaign

Fire safety in tower blocks is an “endemic problem” say campaigners

Less than a year since fire door safety campaigners turned a spotlight on high rise tower blocks, the country wakes to news of the devastating inferno at Grenfell Tower, West London.

Hannah Mansell, chair of the Passive Fire Protection Forum, trustee of the Children’s Burns Trust and spokesperson for the BWF’s Fire Door Safety Week campaign, said:

“We have a right to be very angry at the news about Grenfell Tower. I regularly sit in meetings with fire safety professionals, and their fury and frustration at the inaction of local councils and social landlords is palpable.

“We have been warning about the risks of a fire like this for years. ‘What we need to get people to take notice is a huge fire in a tower block’ they say. Well, here it is.

“There is an endemic fire safety problem in this type of housing stock. I have walked around tower blocks documenting and filming the fire safety breaches. I’ve seen flats without fire doors, no emergency lighting or signage on fire doors and escape routes, broken fire rated glass, wedged-open fire doors, poor fire stopping around service hatches that breach compartmentation, no smoke seals in fire doors, rubbish and combustible material left in the common areas, and no information displayed on the specific fire plan of the building.

“But that information appears to fall on deaf ears. Action must be taken now to address these issues.

“Our hearts go out to the residents of Grenfell Tower, their neighbours, friends and families, and the extraordinarily brave fire fighters and medics who are continuing to deal with the emergency.

“And to every local council and housing association I say, you know what to do, take action today. The next one could be tomorrow.”

Research for Fire Door Safety Week last year underlines some of the problems, in particular showing that the poorest in society continue to be at greatest risk from fire, with lower income tenants more concerned about fire safety where they live, less informed about how to protect themselves, and less able to move away from perceived danger.

Just a third (35%) of the lowest income households renting flats say they have been given information on the emergency fire plan for the building where they live, compared to 88% of tenants on incomes over £100,000 a year.

Those on incomes of £25,000 or less are much less likely to feel completely safe from fire (27%) than those on incomes above £80,000 (44%).

But two out of every nine (22%) households with incomes under £25,000 living in rented flats who have concerns over fire safety are unable to move because they can’t afford to.

More than half of all tenants (58%) and over 70% of lower income tenants have no idea who the ‘Responsible Person’ is for the building where they live – the person to whom they should usually report their fire safety concerns. And worryingly, 15% of all tenants living in blocks of flats who have got fire safety concerns have never reported those concerns to anyone at all.

The BWF has also carried out FOI research which suggests worrying problems in other London tower blocks.

 

After the fire

A legal tidal wave of pain is heading Southwark Council’s way. And it could easily hit other London councils too, says Hannah Mansell.

It is seven years since the fatal fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London, which claimed the lives of three young women and three children.

The first legal case arising from the tragedy was concluded at the start of March this year. Southwark Council pleaded guilty to four offences under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order.

Crucially, the legal case centred not on the fire itself, but on the accountability to risk that existed in the building prior to the fire. The focus was on the failure to identify and manage building defects that sat quietly in the background, setting the scene for the deadly firestorm that ensued that summer’s afternoon in 2009.

These defects included serious breaches of fire compartmentation throughout the structure, the corridors and staircases in the building. There were no intumescent strips and smoke seals in fire doors that would have helped prevent the spread of fire and smoke, and no fire risk assessment existed for the building.

The council’s subsequent £570,000 fine, which included £300,000 court costs, was substantial, but actually much lower than it could have been. The judge specified that the fine was reduced by almost half because of the early guilty plea and other mitigating features. Legal experts have also pointed out that, had current health and safety law applied to such cases, the fine could have been in the millions.

Nonetheless, Southwark Council was found to be knowingly taking huge risks with public safety, and I suspect this is just the start of the legal tidal wave of pain heading their way.

Given the likelihood of private action by those directly involved, let alone the cost of repairs to date, the financial cost of this fire is almost certainly going to reach seven or eight figures.

New research highlights broader risks

More worryingly, newly published research by the Fire Door Safety Week campaign indicates that other councils could easily find themselves in the same position.

Last year, the BWF-Certifire scheme made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to each of the 32 London councils. It asked how many residential blocks over six storeys the council owned, and for the date of the last fire risk assessment. The results were shared with the enforcing authority, London Fire Brigade.

Only 15 full responses were received, identifying a housing stock of 1,025 residential blocks six storeys in height or above. All had a fire risk assessment, and 90% of those assessments had last been updated in the previous couple of years.

So far so good, you might think. But the frequency of a fire risk assessment is determined by a number of factors including a risk rating, the age of building and the number of storeys.

The fire risk assessment should be considered a living document – it doesn’t remain valid for an unlimited amount of time and regular review is required. Indeed current local government guidance goes as far to say that for blocks with higher risk and blocks over four storeys in height, an annual review might be more appropriate, with a new fire risk assessment every three years. For the highest risk premises, an annual fire risk assessment might be appropriate.

Our FOI research revealed that there were 102 high rise residential properties in London that were fire risk assessed prior to 2014. Two councils responded that they had a number of buildings that had last been assessed in 2010 and 2011, over five years ago.

Closer inspections reveal fire safety breaches

So we went to have a look. Onsite inspections to some of these buildings revealed visible breaches of fire safety including non fire-rated front doors to some individual flats, a lack of emergency lighting or signage on fire doors and escape routes, broken fire rated glass, wedged-open fire doors, poor fire stopping around service hatches that breach compartmentation, no smoke seals in fire doors, rubbish and combustible material left in the common areas, and no information displayed on the specific fire plan of the building.

We’re not the only ones to have raised the alarm on this. Just a year after the Lakanal House fire, an undercover BBC news report exposed widespread lack of fire risk assessments and broken fire compartmentation in the capital’s high rise residential buildings.

The fire compartmentation of Lakanal House should have contained the fire in one place, enabling the implementation of the ‘stay put’ fire plan.

Such a plan is often implemented where it’s not easy or practical to run a quick or safe evacuation, so it’s found in a variety of complex residential, commercial, healthcare and sleeping accommodation.

Complete and unbroken passive fire compartmentation, including effective fire doors, is absolutely critical in buildings that have a stay put fire plan. They should enable users of the building to seek refuge from fire and smoke, as well as creating a safe and protected route for the fire services to tackle the source of the blaze. But in reality, and especially in existing rented housing stock, this is just often ignored.

The heart-breaking outcomes of the Lakanal House fire and this prosecution must act as a massive reawakening of accountability in those directly responsible for the fire safety of their residents. This will be the theme yet again of Fire Door Safety Week – our work is far from done.

Hannah Mansell is technical manager of BWF-Certifire, chair of the Passive Fire Protection Forum, trustee of the Children’s Burns Trust and spokesperson for the national safety and awareness campaign Fire Door Safety Week (25 September – 1 October 2017).

Council housing residents receive fire door safety award

Hannah Mansell presents the Fire Door Safety Week award to Rutendo Chitiga and the Balmoral Estate Residents AssociationA local fire door safety campaign to inspire hope and raise awareness of fire safety in Southend-on-Sea following the tragic death of a mum-to-be, is one of three initiatives to receive awards this month from the British Woodworking Federation (BWF).

Rutendo Chitiga and Terry Brown from the Balmoral Estate Tenants Association in Southend-on-Sea organised a week long fire safety campaign for their community, building on the information and resources made available through the Fire Door Safety Week initiative.

Their campaign was launched after the death of expectant mother Khabi Abrey and her unborn child, following an arson attack in the building on the Balmoral Estate where she lived.

After the fire it was realised that the residents did not have the necessary fire safety information about what to do in the event of a fire. Residents were also unaware of the critical role that fire doors play in holding back fire and smoke. Many residents said that they were unaware of what to do in a fire and didn’t know that their flat front doors were in fact fire doors.

Earlier this month, Rutendo and Terry arranged for the distribution of fire door safety information to residents, door-to-door visits by local fire officers to test smoke alarms and a week of educational activities with local schools. They also held an exhibition of artwork created by the Turning Tides Kids Club and launched a book of poetry written by Khabi, and unveiled a plaque in her memory.

Hannah Mansell, technical manager of the BWF and BWF-Certifire, said:

“This campaign was born from tragedy and loss, but inspires hope and a positive and proactive attitude towards increasing fire safety in the community. We’ve been honoured to be able to support Rutendo and Terry’s work, and absolutely delighted to see the impact of Fire Door Safety Week making a difference to people’s lives.

“The Fire Door Safety Week awards are our way of saying thank you, and recognising the creativity, commitment and collaboration shown in these initiatives to take what we’ve started, to own it, and to spread the word about the critical importance of fire doors to save lives and property.”

Rutendo Chitiga welcomed the award on behalf of her residents association. She said:

“Although there was an underlying tinge of sadness, the support we received from Hannah Mansell and from the Essex County Fire & Rescue Service have given us the confidence to go forward boldly with the campaign. We managed to reach more than 500 local residents with information on fire door safety. We hope this can become an annual borough-wide event.”

Hannah Mansell presents FDSW Award to LFB

London Fire Brigade Assistant Deputy Commissioner, Dan Daly was also presented with a Fire Door Safety Week award for the LFB Fire Safety Team, for its ongoing support and commitment to the campaign.

 

 

Willmott Dixon promotion of FDSW 2016

 

Building contractor Willmott Dixon received the third award, for carrying out the largest ever fire door inspection during Fire Door Safety Week 2016, involving 3,000 employees who were urged to check fire doors in their buildings and to report any concerns.

“Checking a fire door and reporting concerns to those responsible for fire safety is an easy thing to do,” said Hannah Mansell. “We hope other building owners and employers will do the same and ensure that the building that they are legally responsible for is fire safe, and that the residents are informed about the fire safety plan for the specific building.”

This year’s Fire Door Safety Week 2017 will take place from 25 September – 1 October 2017. The focus of this year’s campaign will be on high risk buildings and users, such as rented private accommodation, HMOs, and specialised housing for vulnerable residents.

The campaign will also focus on how to stay safe in a fire and the risk of smoke inhalation, one of the often overlooked causes of death and long-term illness caused by fires in buildings.